At first glance, Lewiston Morning Tribune roving reporter David Johnson could be a worthy spokesman for Subaru's next big ad campaign. Not because he's secretly a movie star, or has a great story about how his Subie saved him from near-annihilation on the Moscow-Pullman highway, but because of his work. For more than two decades, Johnson has traveled throughout the paper's considerable distribution area, meeting complete strangers whose names were picked at random from the phone book, and telling about their lives in his "Everyone Has a Story" column. In doing so, he's worn out six Subarus and is currently on his seventh.
"If I were just commuting to work and back, I'd probably cut my mileage in half," he concedes, even though his home in Princeton is 53 miles from newspaper headquarters in Lewiston. "I'm up to 210,000 miles on this one, but I want to see if I can get it up to 300,000," he says.
But Johnson's story, and the stories of the people one meets in his memoir No Ordinary Lives, are far more interesting and complex than the revolutions of his odometer. Johnson (who reads from the book on Friday) begins with a series of "how it all began" narratives: how he started out as an idealistic journalism student at the University of Idaho, how the idea for the column was born and how a tragic coincidence led him to the love of his life, Diane. From there, Johnson's story unfolds like a quilt, with the stories of his subjects making up many of the panels.
We meet Marciano Prado of Kamiah, whose large Mexican-American family welcomes the young reporter with big smiles and blisteringly hot chili. There's Nancy Elsbury, who tests toilet paper for the Potlatch Corporation and divides the world into "crumplers and folders." And there's even the occasional misanthrope, like Florie Mullikan, who seems to need romance about as much as she needs a triple shift at the Strike and Spare Bar and Grill in Lewiston. In Johnson's hands, the most regular and unnoticed people suddenly become like characters in a novel. Not surprisingly, Johnson learns a lot from his interviews with such seemingly ordinary folks, and in the process uses their stories to help him better understand his own. He also discovers that his unique brand of random "just regular folks" journalism is not only possible, but to some, necessary.
"You look at the front page of every newspaper this week, and there's bound to be a story about Iraq," he says. "But in the Tribune, there's going to be a story about Iraq on the front page and a story about a hairdresser who just happened to answer the phone. It's great to be able to offer that perspective -- that while this is going on, there's also the broad spectrum of people living their daily lives."
In addition to being one part memoir and two parts essay, No Ordinary Lives reads just as much as a work of regional history.
"The people themselves, and I estimate I've interviewed close to a thousand by now, have all contributed to what I like to think of as a human geography project," Johnson says. "When I started working on the book, I put my clippings of all the columns on the floor. All those faces staring back up at me say so much about the area." Similarly, anyone who loves the mixture of wheat fields, white pine forests, college towns, lonely gas stations and breakneck highway grades that constitutes the Palouse/Clearwater/Hell's Canyon region will feel a little thrill at Johnson's descriptions of such places.
While "Everyone Has a Story" has thousands of fans in the Lewiston Morning Tribune readership area, Johnson's work has garnered praise from The New York Times, National Public Radio and The Boston Globe. In fact, the New York Times piece, which ran four years ago, is responsible both for Johnson's book deal with Warner (who published No Ordinary Lives) and for the attention of all three major networks, who have worked to incorporate similar random interview segments of their own. CBS successfully launched "Everybody Has a Story, with Steve Hartman."
It would be easy to get caught up in the pleasant flurry of media attention, book deals and the occasional high-five among fellow writers, but Johnson, true to form, is focused on what really matters. One of the more upsetting twists of No Ordinary Lives has to do with Johnson's wife Diane's health issues, and he admits he's thinking more and more about not putting off all the things one usually relegates to retirement.
"One of the things I'm really grateful for is what these people have taught me, vicariously, about strength," he says. "I believe in living one day at a time, but I also thank these people for showing me, through their stories, how precious life is."